Tuesday, December 28, 2010

To Pay or to Pay More?

Uh-oh. I got back into the city two days after the blizzard and, following a brief, half-hearted tour of my usual parking haunts (featuring mounds of snow with cars beneath them and people standing on the roofs of cars, shoving the snow off), I went to my old garage, where I hoped they would take me in. And they did, for a price: $36 a day. I called the management office, to see what kind of monthly rate I can get, and the best they can do is $303.04. That's almost twice as much as I paid in this garage two years ago. And yet when I hung up the phone both the man at Icon (Jose) and I were convinced that I was going to go to the garage tonight and fill out the paperwork and leave a check. What to do? If I leave the car in the garage till Saturday, I'm up to $180. And out on the street again.

I may wait a few days and see if my friends in Rockaway want the car for the winter or not. It came in handy for them, but then, misfortune: they had to go to a funeral in Brooklyn and got a ticket for parking at a bus stop. Parking is probably worse right now in Rockaway than it is in Manhattan.

Or I could try one more option: the new Automotion lot near me. "Park Swipe Leave" is their motto. At least it would be novel.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Picture a Swiss clock with an alternate-side-parking theme: At 7:30, a little door opens and St. Francis of Assisi toddles out, sprinkling birdseed; sparrows surround him. At 7:50, the street sweeper drives through a big door, flashing and beeping, and cars scramble before it; the Broom completes its rotation, the cars return to their slots, and a cop pops out to write a ticket. If you are a Swiss clockmaker, I urge you to run with this. Each clock could have its mechanism set for the alternate-side-parking regulations in a specific neighborhood.

This morning, alternate-side parking was not as precise as a Swiss clock. For one thing, I kept popping out of my car. First I said hello to the birdman, who showed me what he feeds the birds (ordinary birdseed, orange and green) and pointed out the patch of evergreen where the sparrows live (the pigeons roost across the street). Then a woman in a black BMW drew my attention to a proliferation of orange traffic cones farther down the block. It seemed there had been an addendum to the No Parking Saturday sign. I trotted down the street to check it out, and sure enough: a No Parking Thursday sign had appeared, and was already in effect (5 A.M. to 6 P.M.). “The cones are all over the place,” the woman complained. “They’re filming ‘Nurse Jackie.’” There were no cones where we were, but how could we be sure Nurse Jackie would stay at the far end of the block?

A cop strolled by, and the BMW woman got out to ask her advice. I joined them; something about parking makes me unusually sociable. The cop knew nothing—she said we should park at our own discretion. I charged down the street again to ask some guys who were maneuvering a dumpster into position if they knew anything. One of them referred me to a car wrangler, sitting in a truck, who confirmed that Nurse Jackie needed only one side of the street, which I interpreted as only the far half of the block. I reported to the BMW owner that I thought we were safe—at least, until Saturday at 5 A.M.

Just then, a spot opened up on the Tuesday-Friday side of the street. Should I take it? It meant I wouldn’t have to sit here till eight o’clock and could get to the pool early and would be on time for a doctor's appointment at 9:45. Unfortunately, it also meant I would be out here again at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. But today had dawned so beautiful and clear that it was a pleasure to be out and about, enjoying the sight of the early light hitting the tops of the buildings. Plus it looked like the No Parking Saturday sign might not apply to this little strip of the street, maybe five car-lengths, on the Tuesday-Friday side. And I would rather get up at seven-thirty on Friday than bestir myself at 5 A.M. on the Sabbath.

So I moved. But once the car was in place, it was as if my body had been set for parking. There I sat with a cup of takeout coffee and a banana. I thought of crossing the street to explain my action to my new friend in the BMW, but why would she care? I peeled and ate the banana. The coffee was already getting cold. At 7:45, before the Broom could make its (irrelevant) appearance, I snapped out of it: I broke free of the spell of the Swiss clock and altered my parking routine.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I was going to take the car out to Rockaway last weekend, but it wasn’t exactly beach weather, and besides, I didn’t want to give up my parking spot. I had begun to wonder how long I could stay in this fine spot on K Street—perhaps till March? It has been extremely convenient, even with no alternate-side-parking holidays falling on Monday or Thursday until Martin Luther King Day, on January 17, 2011. After sitting in the car for a half hour, I have time to walk over to my health club by the river and get in a swim before work twice a week. Who knew that having a car in the city could be such good cardiopulmonary exercise?

Last night, a Sunday, I happened to pass K Street on foot, and noticed, at the far end, an ominous salmon-pink sign that said “No Parking Saturday.” It wasn’t clear whether it meant the Saturday just past (December 4th) or the Saturday to come (December 11th). If the former, I might arrive at my spot on Monday morning, with my swimming gear, only to find that my car had been towed. I did not sleep well for the suspense, awaking at about four in the morning with the sensation that my inner lining had become hypersensitive to Turkish cuisine.

But this morning the car was there, innocent of parking violations. What’s more, the pigeon fancier showed himself. He is an old man, bald and shambling, who emerged from my friend K’s building at 7:30 with a plastic container (as for hummus) full of bread crumbs. The pigeons were waiting for him. Behind me was a motorcycle. I watched in the rearview mirror as its owner arrived and suited up. He laid his gloves on my trunk, got his helmet out of the space under the seat (that helmet must have been freezing), and tucked himself into a sort of lap robe—a combination windbreaker and potato sack—before starting up and riding off.

There was a long piece in Saturday’s Times about the city’s plan to crack down on parking scofflaws. The person with the most unpaid tickets is a guy in the Bronx who owes $57,526. He said a friend of his racked up those tickets while using his van to make deliveries. The van has since been repossessed, and the friend has fled to the Dominican Republic. “I learned my lesson,” the scofflaw said. “Don’t trust your friends.”

The Broom appeared at 7:50. I left the car running awhile after moving, and even turned the heat on briefly (today’s weather featured the season's first snow flurries). On my way down the street to the pool when my time was up, I took a closer look at the "No Parking Saturday" sign. In fine print, someone had added the hours that No Parking would be in effect: 5:30 A.M. to 6 P.M. I have to get up on Saturday at five to move the car? This is sterner discipline than I have come to expect of my alternate-side-parking exercise routine.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Guerrilla Book Marketing

Of all the subtle beauties of my current parking spot, chief among them is its position: first in line after the sign dividing commercial parking from alternate-side. When the street sweeper comes, the car in this position has the best chance of getting its spot back, with the minimum of anxiety. It helps that there is no parking directly across the street: only a curb cut leading to a door that opens like a portcullis, admitting cars one at a time into a big elevator cage. So when the Broom comes, as it did this morning at 7:45, I have only to start up my engine, back up a bit, pull out as if into a diagonal spot across the street, leaving room for the Broom to pass, and then reverse back into position before through traffic can get tangled up with the parkers and foil our enterprise.

This is such a fine spot that I could sit here for a half hour twice a week and watch the seasons change. The pigeons were absent this morning, and the yellow leaves of the ginkgo had mostly fallen. In front of me was a silver-gray Dodge Charisma with New Jersey plates. I had not heard of the Charisma before, for a very good reason: when I looked again, I saw that the word formed by the chrome letters was not Charisma but Charger. I like Charisma better. (Detroit, take note.)

Over the long holiday weekend, I practiced the art of guerrilla book marketing. Curious about where the various bookstores have been shelving “Freud’s Blind Spot,” the anthology of sibling experiences that I contributed to (Simon and Schuster, $15; here’s the Amazon link), I went first to Barnes & Noble and asked for it at the information desk. It was in Relationships, on the third floor. I found three copies, shelved alphabetically under the name of the editor, Elisa Albert (how great that her name begins with "A"); I took all three downstairs with me and bought two (after placing the third strategically on one of the counters featuring new nonfiction paperbacks). I got some slight discount, because I am a member of Barnes & Noble, but I had a coupon for an extra fifteen percent off that I forgot to use.

Next on my list was Borders. There is no Relationships section at Borders, so I wandered around in Psychology and discovered a section labelled Anthologies, but no luck. I used one of the computers Borders has instead of employees, and determined that there were indeed copies of "Freud's Blind Spot" in the store. Finally I tracked them down in Literary Fiction, under Elisa Albert’s name. There were two copies, and I bought one (after finding a nice spot up front on a shelf that featured new nonfiction). I had gone to the trouble of printing out a coupon I received via e-mail, so I got forty percent off.

Third was the Strand. Here I did not know what to hope for: that there would be dozens of reviewers’ copies available (at half price) or none, because all the critics were busy consulting the book as they wrote rave reviews. Anyway, there it was downstairs, not among the reviewers’ copies but in the Literary Nonfiction section, which has recently been moved downstairs: three copies, under Elisa Albert’s name, at half price. I bought all three, feeling relieved that it had been shelved properly.

I suppose I could make a color Xerox of the cover and tape it to the window of my car, parked there behind the Charisma, where it might have a subliminal effect on passersby.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bus Lane Alert

From my parking spot today, I saw a fleet of four pedicabs pulling mini-billboards that said “Bus Lanes Are for Buses—$115 Fine.” They were headed east, toward First and Second Avenues, where new cameras have been installed to catch cars violating the bus-only lanes. Like the red-light cameras, the bus-lane cameras, which go in effect today (Monday), will be another huge ka-ching for the city. This is from the online Wall Street Journal: “The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says ‘the city's 2.8 million bus riders have been held hostage for far too long by motorists who routinely block bus lanes.’… Vehicles will be allowed to enter a bus lane only to make the next available right turn or to quickly discharge or pick up passengers.”

Everything happens at once. The pedicab ads went by just as the Broom was passing. Though I backed up as far as possible last Monday after the S.U.V. in front of me pulled out, there still was not quite enough room for two cars, so a motorcycle had filled in the blank. Its scofflaw owner failed to show up. The street sweeper—the man, not the machine—seeing the motorcycle in front of me and a van in the commercial space behind me, knew that he wouldn’t be able to get in and out of my spot, so although I started my engine, in a show of good faith, he didn't make me move.

But as my head was turned, some urban Hansel and Gretel must have walked up the street, because suddenly the pigeons reappeared on the sidewalk outside my car door, pecking at microscopic breadcrumbs. Among the birds were some sparrows, and among the sparrows a blond. I seem to be parked in a bird-watching zone. Ahead was a ginkgo tree in full yellow.

Meanwhile, at Broadway and Twenty-third, there was a truck with the word Arctic on it. I thought it was a promotion for some freezing-cold beverage, and headed for the tent to get my free sample. Despite the fact that it is unseasonably mild today, there was snow on the ground and people were bundled up in mittens and mufflers and earmuffs. When I got to the kiosk, a man was turning people away. They were not giving away free samples. They were making a movie.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sneak Preview

Chances are pretty good you'll be getting this for Christmas: "Freud's Blind Spot," edited by Elisa Albert, with an essay about Dee and me, out today from Free Press.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Arrr ...

Pigeons swarmed the sidewalk outside my car door this morning. I could not tell what they were pecking at, it was so tiny (cornmeal?). Apart from the pigeons, I was in a beautiful spot: Monday/Thursday, 7:30-8, with alternate-side suspended Tuesday through Thursday for Idul-Adha. I am good till next Monday and then again for Thanksgiving, if I don’t go anywhere this weekend.

At 7:50 A.M., the Broom sped down the middle of the street with no intention of sweeping. The car in front of me, a big white Lexus with Massachusetts plates, was unoccupied. At eight o’clock, a young blonde showed up with a cup of coffee, got in the car, and drove away. What did she know that I didn’t know?

Sunday evening I came home to yet another envelope from the Department of Finance. It felt ominously thick, as if it contained a return envelope, yet it seemed too soon for a response to my defense in the matter of the defunct curb cut. I make it a policy not to open financial mail in the evening, but in this case I couldn’t stand the suspense. I tore open the envelope and inside, along with a pre-addressed return envelope, was a form showing three pictures of the Eclair, unmistakable with its fishermen’s-parking-lot permits lined up on the right rear fender and, as if that were not enough, a closeup of the license plate. It was running a red light.

My first sensation was of hilarity: I had caught my mechanic joy-riding. The red-light camera was in Rockaway, where I had left the car for a muffler job: it wouldn’t be the first time that I had gotten a ticket while my car was at the mechanic’s. He had probably taken it for a test drive after fixing the muffler, or used it to run an errand, or both. Hah! I would present him with this undeniable proof and demand that he give me a free oil change and throw in a pair of complimentary windshield-wiper blades.

But when I examined the details, the date of the violation did not match up with my appointment to get the muffler fixed. Where was I on 09/11/2010 at 5:59 PM? That was the Saturday after Labor Day, and friends from New England were visiting me in Rockaway. I had gone to the marina in the afternoon to check on my boat, and then returned to the bungalow, where one friend had already arrived on foot and the other soon arrived by car. We sat on the porch for a while, trying to decide what to do for dinner; I didn’t feel like cooking. Then I had a brainstorm: a picnic at Fort Tilden. We had fresh mozzarella and garden tomatoes and leftover pesto and sliced turkey and a bottle of Prosecco. We bought some rolls, threw in salt and pepper and knives and forks. I even packed champagne glasses.

I don’t remember running the light on the way to the beach. I must have sailed through it in an excess of high spirits. The amount due is $50. When I showed the Notice of Liability to a friend who let me use the color copier at work, he said, “You should get rid of that car.”

I went out in the boat one more time on Sunday, heading over to the capped-off landfill on the Brooklyn side at high tide. Thankfully, it was an uneventful trip, and though I haven’t gotten out much this season, on my return I executed a beautiful landing: yanking the gas plug as I entered the marina, feeling the motor begin to sputter out as I turned into my slip, having the boat glide to a stop just as it reached the dock. I grabbed the line I tie up with and wrapped it around the cleat. Too bad no one was watching except the cormorants.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


That time of year thou mayst in me behold when I resubscribe to home delivery of the Times. The home-delivery week seems to start on Wednesday, so for several years now my first home-delivered copy has carried the results of Election Day. How sad to see on the front page the first unflattering picture of Barack Obama.

It was not election news that I craved so much as the weather page. I know there are other sources for the weather, but I like the graph in the Times that predicts the high and low temperature for the next several days. As soon as that line plunges into the thirties, I start worrying about turning the water off in Rockaway. As usual, I am torn between pulling the plug (literally) and stretching the season. Last year, I let it go too long, and when I called the plumber, he had already decamped for Florida. But he very sweetly sent his son the accountant to turn off my water. This year I called early, and it turns out Jimmy isn't going to Florida till January.

I cancelled my first appointment, for November 1st, All Saints Day (alternate side suspended), hoping to reschedule for Thursday, but the plumber said it was going to rain. At least that meant it wasn’t cold enough for the pipes to freeze. But the forecast (and I did consult other sources at this point) showed the temperature dipping as low as 30 over the weekend. (The Times held at a conservative 34.) We set a tentative date for Friday, November 5th, Diwali (alternate side suspended), agreeing to talk the night before to confirm.

Jimmy was right about Thursday: it poured and was gloomy. I began to focus more on precipitation than temperature: on Friday there was a chance of rain, but even if it didn’t rain, the ground would still be wet. I hated to think of my plumber, who is like an ancient Chinese ancestor (in jeans, and minus the beard), lying on the wet earth beneath the bungalow. And considering that the forecast was getting milder, I asked, when I called, if he would prefer to postpone again till next Thursday (recycling day in Rockaway; I could get all the newspapers and beer bottles out for the winter). He agreed, and I was feeling quite beneficent: I was giving my plumber Diwali off. Also, I didn't have to leave the Tuesday-Friday spot I found last Sunday, which was good for the whole week.

Later, I realized I’d rescheduled him for Veterans Day (alternate side suspended). I hope he's not a veteran. And that it doesn't rain.

Friday, October 29, 2010


The return address on the envelope was NYC Finance, Adjudication Division.

The document was headed: Decision and Order.

Under “Notice of Violation Decision Summary,” it said, “Disposition: GUILTY.”

It elaborated: “Respondent claims that the summons incorrectly describes the sign posted at the cited location. Pursuant to Traffic Rule 4-08(a)(1)(i), ‘one authorized regulatory sign anywhere on a block, which is the area of sidewalk between one intersection and the next, shall be sufficient notice of the restriction(s) in effect on that block.’ Respondent’s claim is not supported by persuasive evidence about the signs at the place of occurrence. Neither of the photos showed any name(s) of street and building numbers. Respondent did not show, with substantial, detailed persuasive evidence that no part of the vehicle was within the No Standing Zone.”

One should not read things like this before breakfast.

I have to admit that I knew if I had walked down the block I could have figured out which side of the street the “No Standing Anytime” sign referred to (see "Not Guilty," September 2, 2010). But you know what? It’s all too annoying to go on about. They got me. I’ll pay. And I’ll never park in that spot again.

At the bottom of the document is this instruction: “Retain this record of your hearing for 8 years and 3 months.” What? That brings us to January 26, 2019, before the matter is officially closed! That’ll teach me to try to fight City Hall.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Playing with Fire (Hydrants)

Orange cones have been proliferating in my neighborhood lately, thanks to the film industry. Last Saturday, I drove back from Rockaway (in relative silence—got the muffler fixed, for $275) and found a spot on the Monday-Thursday side of K Street, just far enough (I fervently hoped) from a fire hydrant. Orange cones were all down the other side of the street, along with signs announcing a movie shoot (through November 11th!). Returning to the car for my half-hour sit on Monday and then again today (Thursday), I was worried that the cones might have multiplied and crossed the street . . . but I was lucky. No cones and no hideous orange parking tickets.

Ahead of me, in front of the fire hydrant, on this sultry pre-Halloween morning, was a motorcycle under a shroud. It looked as if someone had just picked it up and moved it there, perhaps because it was in the way of a legal spot. I’ve noticed more motorcycles getting tickets lately, but in this case there was no place to tuck a ticket—a cop would have to use a safety pin. The opposite side of the street was a mess of semis and fork-lifts and trucks delivering hydraulic elevator platforms. At 7:50, a little red Geo pulled up in front of me, no doubt hoping to insinuate itself between me and the fire hydrant. But the Broom hadn’t come yet, and he gave up and left. Two motorcycles zipped down the street and squeezed in between cars farther down the street. It was 7:55, and still the Broom had not come.

A black BMW with a fancy silver license-plate holder double-parked alongside the fire hydrant, and a black guy got out. Tall, suave, and Obama-esque, he worked the line of cars behind me to get everyone to back up and make room for him between me and the hydrant. When he got to me, I said that I didn’t mind moving but that the sweeper hadn’t come yet, and if it did, we were going to create one unholy mess, mixing it up with the trucks and the fork-lifts, leaving room for the Broom and thru traffic. He looked at his watch—it was about three minutes to eight—and shrugged. Well, O.K. Maybe the Broom couldn’t get by all those film-industry trucks and orange cones on the next block. I backed up. Then it turned out that the tall, suave black guy couldn’t parallel park to save his life. A super from a nearby building helped direct him, and I kept backing up to give him more inches.

At eight o’clock, there was still no sign of the Broom. We fortunate few started getting out of our cars and locking up. Then I saw it, up the street: the idling Broom, its lights flashing, trying to intimidate a car into moving. I exchanged looks with the man who had gotten out of the S.U.V. behind me. All the alternate-side parkers were now pretending they had nothing to do with any of these vehicles. “If he’s late, it’s nothing to do with us, right?” I said to the S.U.V. owner as the Broom swept disconsolately down the middle of the street. “Right,” he said. “HE should get a ticket.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Defense Rests

The New York City Department of Finance leaves only four short lines on a parking ticket to describe your defense if it doesn't fit into one of their categories. So I edited down my screed to this: "There is no driveway at [address on ticket]. There is a curb cut in front of a Christian Science Reading Room with no vehicular egress. See enclosed photo." I think the photo came out pretty well. It even shows a car parked where I was when I got the ticket (except that it is farther from the fire hydrant, the long shadow of which can be seen at lower right). I'm also rather fond of "vehicular egress." I don't know where that came from.

Perhaps, to sweeten the package, I should have enclosed a picture I took in Rockaway of my passionflower vine, which finally bloomed.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Condolence calls came from as far away as the West Coast about my recent spate of parking tickets. I paid the two for the hydrant offense right away, just to get some of those orange envelopes off my desk. The Department of Finance does make it easy for you: the water-resistant ticket comes with two peel-off labels, one of which says “I want to pay.” I didn’t really want to pay, but I am saving the other peel-off label—“I want a hearing”—for my defense in the matter of the obsolete curb cut fronting the Christian Science Reading Room.

Meanwhile, it seemed like a good time to get the muffler fixed out at the mechanic’s in Rockaway. On the way, I reported to the marina. High winds were predicted for Saturday, but I didn’t believe it until I saw Jamaica Bay: whitecaps fluttered on the surface like a huge flock of birds. Down at the marina, the boats were rocking in their slips. My boat had about four inches of water sloshing around in it, so I got my rubber boots and a bucket out of the trunk. But the slip itself, the narrow dock off the main dock, was rocking almost as much as the boat, and I was afraid I’d lose my balance trying to get in.

I stood and stared for a while, and when a man came up the dock I asked, “Can you give me hand? I want to bail it out, but I’m afraid to get in.” He kindly came out onto the slip with me. “Kind of flimsy, isn’t it?” he said. I took his hand, but I was still scared to get in: I wanted to take his other hand, too. “Get rid of the bucket,” he said. “That way, in case anything happens, at least you’ll have both hands.” That made sense. I put the bucket in the boat. Then he said, “You’d be better off stepping in backwards.” That made sense, too. So I turned around, took both the man’s hands, as if we were dancing, and stepped backward into the boat. “Thanks,” I said.

I started bailing, but soon I had to sit down. The water was as choppy as I’ve ever seen it, and the boat was tossing around. The Boss came running down the gangplank, saying, “We’re gonna have to get you an electric pump.”

“Good idea,” I said, bailing.

“How ya doin'?”

"O.K. How are you?"

“Goin’ to save a boat,” he said, and hustled down the dock in his blue hooded sweatshirt. Soon another man ran down the gangplank after him, and I saw them busy with the lines on one of the boats at the far end of the marina. It struck me for the first time that the Boss looks a little like Popeye. He and the other guy and a lot of the men at the marina have that build: the upper-body strength and the nimble legs.

When it was time to get out of the boat, I played it safe: I sat on the dock and swung my legs up out of the boat. Then I scootched down the flimsy slip to the main dock, where I hauled myself up by the gangplank rail. I wanted to rinse off the outboard, because my weight in the boat had lowered it into the salt water. So I filled the bucket with fresh water and walked back out on the slip, but when it was time to risk losing my balance by lifting the bucket to slosh it onto the motor, I lost my nerve and danced back to the dock, terrified that I was going to fall into the bay. I'm not used to negotiating surfaces that are pitching about underneath me. Every muscle in my legs quivered for the rest of the day. Now I know why sailors are famous for doing jigs.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Disaster Strikes

Thursday morning when I got to my car I found it festooned with parking tickets: four fat orange envelopes, two stuck under the windshield wiper and two wedged into the sideview mirror. Arg. When I drove in from Rockaway last Saturday for Dee’s show, I was determined to get a Monday-Thursday spot so that I could celebrate Columbus Day (observed on Monday, October 11th), and I settled for the first spot I saw—actually, I went around the block once, hoping for something better, because I knew it looked a little close to the fire hydrant, but I paced off the distance—about ten feet—and decided to take a chance. I respect the need to keep clear of fire hydrants, but sometimes it looks to me like people overdo it, leaving great swathes of space on either side.

There is something printed at the top of parking tickets that I’d never noticed before: “Write only one violation per ticket.” Two of the tickets were issued by an Officer Winn at 2:16 A.M. on 10/11/10. (Note that I had been there for more than twenty-four hours before my alleged infraction drew any notice, so it can’t have been that egregious. Also note the hour that Officer Winn was skulking around my car.) One ticket is for the fire hydrant (he judged that I was only seven feet from it). The other is for a violation of Code 98, Subsection F2: Obstructing Driveway. Now, there is a curb cut at the address recorded on the ticket, and I was parked at the curb cut, but I’ve been down this street before, and that curb cut is a vestige of a former time, when the building it is in front of was a garage, or even a stable. What is there now is a Christian Science Reading Room, and the place where the cars (or horses) passed through is now a plate-glass window that serves as a showcase for religious tomes. There would be no reason for a car to pull in there, or a horse, unless it was a Christian Scientist.

The second set of tickets are the same as the first, except that they were issued approximately twenty-four hours later, by an Officer Santiago, on 10/12/10 at 12:15 A.M. (the hydrant) and 12:17 A.M. (obstructing driveway).

Whenever you contest a ticket, the Department of Finance offers you a discount if you’ll shut up and go away. (Recently, I received the expected offer to reduce the fine for my “No Standing” offense from $115 to $90, but it doesn’t seem like a big enough discount. Besides, I am sincere in my defense, and it’s worth $25 to me to see if it holds up.) I could contest the two tickets for parking too close to a hydrant ($115 x 2), but I just looked up the rule and it turns out that the prescribed distance is fifteen feet, not ten. So I'm screwed.

But blocking an obsolete curb cut? Google maps has a good shot of the Christian Science Reading Room. (Here’s the link; I realize that by publishing it I risk having someone take my spot, but this one doesn’t seem to have been very lucky for me, does it?) The street view on Google even shows a car parked right where I was parked. If the “Obstructing Driveway” offenses ($90 x 2) are dismissed, I can maintain the delusion that I've saved $190.

I found a spot on the same block on Thursday, far from any fire hydrants or curb cuts. When I walked up the block after sitting in the car for an hour and a half, fuming, I noticed that no one had dared to park in front of the Christian Science Reading Room.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Baby Dee with Swans

Baby Dee’s opening for the Swans on Saturday at the Bowery Ballroom was one of the best sets I’ve ever heard her do. She started on the accordion with an instrumental piece called “Early Spring,” and then sat down at the harp and, with Matthew Robinson on cello and Sarah Alden on violin, sang “The Robin’s Tiny Throat” (which is an excellent song to open with, because it kind of explains why she’s up there singing to begin with), “A Book of Songs for Anne Marie,” “Lilacs,” and “So Bad.” She said she had never told the story behind “So Bad” (“Jesus got my mom in there, and beat her up so bad”), but that someone in the audience had witnessed it, and she dedicated the song to me. (She didn’t tell the story, and I’m not going to either—yet. “So Bad,” oddly, is the song of Dee’s that is easiest for people to lay their own story on.)

Then she did a song that is not on any of her CDs but is on one of David Tibet’s: “Idumea.” She followed with “Set Me as a Seal on Your Heart,” which has a long, beautiful instrumental introduction. Then came a surprise: she introduced “Fresh Out of Candles” as a song about growing up in Cleveland in the fifties and early sixties. I’ve only heard this (to me) tragicomic song (it’s partly about saints who got deposed after Vatican II) with piano accompaniment, and Dee had rearranged it for the harp/cello/violin trio. She played a new song called “The Day I Died” (it will be on her next CD) and finished with one of her two slug songs, “Brother Slug and Sister Snail.” For this, Sarah created a shimmering trail of slime on violin. Matthew had a cello solo on one of the songs. And Dee is playing the harp better than ever.

This was the final concert on the Swans tour with Baby Dee. It was also my first experience in an audience for heavy-metal New York punk. I was advised to bring earplugs, and I did. The Swans are wonderful to look at: three craggy veterans and three younger musicians. One of them is a guy named Thor, who has waist-length blond hair and hammers a set of bells. After he took off his shirt, he looked like nothing so much as a sweating blacksmith. There were three guitars and a pedal steel and another percussionist, all banging away. At one point, two slide trombones joined the act, and I couldn’t even hear them (maybe it was the earplugs). I saw Michael Gira’s lips moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was singing. I am told—and I believe—that the loudness is necessary, that it is part of the point. For a while, I found a place on the balcony, right by the railing, and I could look down at the heads of the people below, standing shoulder to shoulder and vibrating. And it was kind of thrilling in a visceral way. It blows everything else out of your head.

Then I descended to the lounge level and hung out with Baby Dee and Little Annie, who are taking their act to Europe later this month, until it was time to go home. Dee’s next gig is in London, October 16th.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Spoiled by the Jewish holidays—five in a row, freeing up the entire month of September—I returned yesterday from a weekend in New England, unloaded the car, and wondered what to do with it. The Eclair now starts reliably, but she needs a new muffler. My friend’s son showed me where the exhaust pipe has come loose. At first it just rattled, but now it roars. It seemed wrong to make so much noise only in order to move the car from one side of the street to the other. I decided to go to Rockaway, check on the boat, and find a parking spot out there.

I had driven up to Massachusetts in the storm last Friday (there is some kind of leak in the well beneath the windshield wipers, and rain dripped on my toes as I drove), so the clear weather when I left for the drive back, at dawn on Sunday, reminded me why people love to drive: it was an intense pleasure just to see the road stretching ahead into the hills. I’d had an excellent weekend, replete with good food and the scratching of several modest consumer itches (a jar of honey, a bag of apples, a new flat-screen TV). I didn’t need the radio or tape-player for company: I was content, for a change, to be peacefully absorbed in the Connecticut scenery.

I planned to take the Sawmill River Parkway all the way down to the West Side Highway—I love the part where, just as you emerge from the tunnel-like toll plaza, the Hudson River opens out on your right—and in my determination I barely registered an LED highway sign that read (in red) “HENRY HUDSON PKWY CLOSED TO 54 ST.” What? Surely if this was true it would be repeated. I passed the exit that offered me a last chance to give up on the Sawmill and take the Cross County Parkway to one of the other approaches to Manhattan, and turned on the radio. Just as the cars ahead of me congealed into a long ribbon of parking lot, I learned that the West Side Highway was indeed closed for a five-borough bike ride.

Cursing all cyclists, I got off in Yonkers. I figured if I went north, I could work my way back to that crossover. Instead, I found Broadway, the old Indian trail, which at least was going in the right direction: south. Where Broadway went under the El, I saw a sign for Route 87, the Major Deegan, and made a left along Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. Soon I was in another traffic jam, but most of the cars on the Major Deegan split off for New Jersey at the junction with 95.

A few hours later, the traffic to Rockaway was light. I went directly to the marina: someone had bailed (or more likely pumped) out my boat. It was too windy to even think of going out in it. I started looking for a parking spot near the bungalow—the next alternate-side holiday isn’t until Columbus Day, next Monday—and had just come to the realization that I was going to have to ask my neighbor to move the car at least once, when suddenly I remembered George’s street: a block of newish two-story attached brick houses, with driveways and parking pads, and no street-cleaning regulations. The people who live there sweep up in front of their own houses. There was one spot left, up against a rosebush planted on the tree lawn. I had time to talk with my neighbors, notice that my passionflower vine has finally put forth a blossom, and take in a major sunset before catching the bus and train home through Brooklyn.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ship’s Log 9/25/2010

Baby Dee came out on the boat with me last Saturday, the day before she played Joe’s Pub with Little Annie. There were several inches of water in the boat (there’d been a hurricane and a tornado since I last saw it), so I took off my sandals, climbed in, and bailed. Dee watched. So did some guys who had been sitting outside the office/trailer. For some reason, it amuses people to watch a lady bail out a boat. One of the guys was big, with a beat-up nose; his sidekick was small and dark. “You know, they sell electric pumps,” the big guy said. He told me, in all seriousness, that once I was out on the bay, with the motor going, I could pull out “that plug next to the motor” and the motor would draw out the rest of the water. What? That plug is the main thing standing between me and certain disaster! This is not a method of bailing I'm going to be testing anytime soon.

Before setting off across Jamaica Bay, I went to see the Boss, to find out what I owed him for getting the outboard fixed and also to ask exactly what had needed fixing. He was resting on the dock, with a tall glass of either iced tea or Captain Morgan’s on-the-rocks. "A hundred," he said. “My price.” (I think that means they would have charged me more.) I was ready to pay up, but he said I should wait till the end of the season, “when we’ll need the money to keep us in kibble for the winter.” He said that the pump had melted, and then he teased me about trying to go boating in sand. I’ve actually never run aground—one of the few mistakes I have NOT made in my boating career—but the awful truth is that I forgot to check for the cooling jet of water before setting off on this year's maiden voyage. When I realized it, I knew I should have turned the motor off instantly and rowed back to the marina, but I didn't. It was a relief to know that I had not completely cooked the motor, only lightly sauteed it.

Dee and I needed a destination, and I always like to go someplace I’ve never been before. I was thinking of Howard Beach. The guy with the beat-up nose recommended Vetro, a new place associated with Russo's-on-the-Bay, the big catering hall on Cross Bay Boulevard. "It's on the left as soon as you enter the channel," he said. "They got new docks and a lot of tables outside." We motored across the bay, between Broad Channel and J.F.K., concentrating on spotting the buoys and not getting swamped by the wakes of bigger boats. On the trestle bridge, an A train from Manhattan passed an A train from Far Rockaway: a pas de deux chevaux de fer. There was a good breeze, so it was a little choppy and we both got splashed. The tide was low.

We passed Bergen Basin (which you can't enter anymore, because of Homeland Security) and Hawtree Basin (which, at high tide, takes you all the way to the terminus of the Air Train at Howard Beach, through what looks like "Deliverance" country) and made a wide turn into the channel at Howard Beach. I would have liked to go up to the end of the channel, very slowly, like Cleopatra on the Nile, but the first mate wanted to go to the first place she saw, Vetro, which was exactly where our informant had said it would be. There was hardly anyone there, but whoever was there was certainly watching as I blundered around, shifting from forward to reverse and finally cutting the motor and using the oar to get the back half of the boat closer to the dock while Dee clung to a cleat from the prow. Such seamanship!

Dee had steak and wine, I had grilled octopus and beer, and the waiter admired my boat, which he called a dinghy. Yachts passed as we dined. On the return voyage, the motor started knocking in an alarming way, and I don't know what that was about. But I slowed down until it was under control, and we reached home without incident.

"Now we will return to the Isle of Manhattan," Dee said. So we went back through Howard Beach by car, and there it was again, this time on our right, our new landmark: Vetro. All in all, it was an eccentric itinerary.

(Photo pirated from Vetro's Web site.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rest-Area Gypsies

I calculate that I have crossed I-80 in Pennsylvania, from the Delaware Water Gap to New Castle, about eighty times since I started driving. This past weekend, I saw a few things I’d never seen before.

One was a lineup of three or four police cars on the shoulder, all with their lights flashing, while, a few yards up the road, a couple embraced. (Had they just had a narrow escape?)

I was playing leapfrog with an army convoy: I’d pass them, then stop for coffee or gas, and they would get ahead of me on the road, so I’d pass them again. At one point, the convoy and I all got off at the same truck stop (I tried not to get behind them in line at the cash register), and I overheard one of the soldiers say into his cell phone, “I can crank it up and drive it, but it’s smoking like there’s no tomorrow.”

At the same pit stop (at the sign of the giant percolator, Sapp Bros.), as I pulled off the ramp there was a van stopped at the curve, with a big plastic gas tank sitting next to it and a cardboard sign that said “Need Gas/Cash.” I stopped, thinking that I could at least drive them and their tank to the gas station and back. A man approached, and said someone had already given him gas. “We run outta cash,” he said. He and his family—he motioned to two large young people lolling near the car—were heading home to Virginia, and they had some seven hundred miles to go. I gave him twenty dollars, and said, “That’ll get you to your next pit stop, anyway.”

I filled my own tank, and as I was getting back on the highway I couldn’t help but notice that the man and his kids were still there, flagging down cars. Sap or Good Samaritan? I will never know, but the whole enterprise did have a Faulknerian flavor to it.

Then, on the way home, I was just pulling out of one of the official rest areas when a clean-cut young man, followed by a woman, waved me down. I thought he was going to tell me I’d left my wallet at the vending machines or something. “I’m really embarrassed,” he began, “but if you could spare a few dollars for gas ... We need about fifty or sixty dollars to get home." I already had my hand in my wallet and was giving him a twenty when he added, "Our parents will pay you back double.” His girlfriend, or sister, seemed very grateful.

It seemed odd that two such different kinds of people would have the same problem on opposite sides of I-80. I got to thinking: Who takes off on a trip without enough money for gas? I think I'm going to have to go with sap.

About the Battery

I wish there were a catchy saying, along the lines of “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey,” for battery terminals. I think I have the color-coding down, thanks to lots of recent experience whipping around the jumper cables: positive = red (blood, life) and negative = black (death). But then you have to remember to hook up the red/positive before the black/negative, and that's where I get mixed up. Red (rhymes with dead) can be dangerous, and black is basic and comes before red in the dictionary. What's a girl to do?

The good news is that I was able to start the car last Thursday all by myself, using the portable charger. The bad news was that I drove straight to the mechanic and he charged me $500 to replace the battery and the alternator.

This seemed high to me. I know what a new battery costs (about eighty dollars), but I didn’t know the price of an alternator. So I asked the mechanic for a bill.

“A bill?” he said, as if the concept were new to him. “You want a bill?”

“Yes,” I said.

We were in the garage office, and he carried the form over to the car to fill it out without me watching. It said: “Replace alternator/Repair wire—$400. Replace new battery—$100.”

“That's it?" I said. "Can't you break it down? You know, an itemized bill?”

“You want itemized?” he asked.

“Yeah, you know … parts, labor.”

“That costs more,” he said.

“It costs more to have a bill?”

“Yeah. I have to use the computer.”

“Look, I’m … curious”—I was trying to avoid the word “suspicious”—“about the price of an alternator.”

So he divided the $400 into two smaller sums, somewhat arbitrarily, it seemed to me: $220 for the part, and the rest for labor. (A sign on the wall said that labor was $95 per hour.)

“Is there any guarantee?” I asked.

He shrugged and said, "Six months, a year.”

"Would you write that down?" I asked.

He scribbled something on the bill and said, “I’m not going to give you a piece of junk.”

"I know," I said. I gave him his five hundred dollars and shook his hand. At home, I Googled the car part. An alternator for a 1990 Honda Civic can be had for as little as $90. It seems that my mechanic had gone out of his way to fix me up with the finest, most expensive alternator on the East Coast.

“You got ripped off,” a friend (male) told me that night. A few days later, another friend (a female) said, “You got a deal.”

So who knows? I'm out $500, but the car starts. On Sunday, the odometer rolled over to 70,000. It happened on the road to the dump, or "Transfer Station" ("No Fish Guts"), on Kelleys Island, in Lake Erie.

Unfortunately, I don't think I can go to that mechanic again.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dead Again

I parked my car in the first available space yesterday when I came back from Rockaway. (All last week it was in a lovely spot, observing the Jewish New Year.) For some reason, when I started it up at eight-thirty this morning to go around the block and double-park across the street, all I got was a low rumble and a few clicks. I hadn’t left the lights on … so I don’t know what is wrong or what to do.

For now, I did nothing. It’s not always easy to do nothing, but in this case it was. I could call AAA. I could shanghai a fellow-motorist and involve him with my jumper cables. I could get the portable charger out of the trunk and see if it worked. But if I succeeded in getting the car started, I would have to drive it some distance to recharge it, and all I wanted to do was get out of the way of the street sweeper and then repark.

There is an office of the Department of Sanitation on this block, and the Sanitation police had left a few cars double-parked across from it. The Broom itself was escorted by the Sanitation police. They favor a white Ford Taurus. I got out as the sanitation cop approached, shrugged theatrically, and said, “Dead battery.” The Sanitation guy said, “No problem,” and added “Sorry” as he went past. The Broom swept around me—or tried to. The Sanitation cop had stopped to ticket an untended vehicle parked ahead of me, so the Broom idled in the middle of the street. Everyone idled while the cop issued the ticket. There was no honking.

At 9:15 a woman cop came by on foot patrol. She was beautiful, black, and busty, and walked in the street with her hands in her pockets. At 9:22 a traffic-enforcement car cruised by. At 9:50 a traffic-enforcement van, full of those orange cones, went by. I had been thinking of trying a little experiment, leaving the car after the Broom went by, to see if the cops had become enlightened as to the lack of necessity for people to be sitting in their cars once the street had been swept. Good thing I thought better of it.

On Thursday, I’ll have to do something about my battery.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Yesterday's Times carried this story about cops being expected to meet quotas for writing tickets: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/nyregion/10quotas.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
Are we surprised? We are not.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Not Guilty

September 2, 2010

New York City Department of Finance
Hearing By Mail Unit
Post Office Box 29021
Brooklyn NY 11202-9021

Dear Sir or Ms.:

Regarding Summons No. *********-*, issued to my car (plate NYC MJN, New York) for parking in a No Standing Anytime zone on Wednesday, 8/17/10:

My car was parked on the west side of a narrow median strip on Beach 102nd St. in Rockaway, Queens. At the north end of this strip are two signs, approximately one car length apart. (See Exhibit A, attached.) The sign farther to the north (the one that appears larger in the photo) indicates Thursday parking rules to the south and No Standing Anytime to the north. The one farther to the south indicates Friday parking rules to the south and No Standing Anytime to the north. (Exhibit B shows the same signs from the opposite side, and offers a slightly better view of the print on the southernmost, or Friday, sign.)

I was parked between the signs, on the west side of the median, in a spot that looks like it is governed by the (larger) sign on the pole to the north, clear of the No Standing Anytime zone. Looking at it, who would not agree that this spot looks perfectly legal? The sign to the south looks like it governs the opposite (east) side of the strip. The strip is too narrow for each pole to be closer to the side of the road that the sign on it applies to. Nor is either sign oriented by a slight tilt to the side of the street it applies to. How was I—how is anyone—to know that the signs mean the opposite of what they appear to say?

I request that the summons be dismissed on the ground that the signs on this median strip are inadequate and ambiguous, if not downright baffling. If the above explanation and the attached photographs are confusing, that only serves as further proof that the signs themselves are confusing (though I do apologize for my photography; this is not a very photogenic block).

Thank you for your patience and consideration.

The Alternate Side Parker

Monday, August 23, 2010

"The Bungalows of Rockaway"

There was a movie premiere in Rockaway last night: the final cut of the documentary “The Bungalows of Rockaway” was shown at Fort Tilden. It rained torrentially, and I was late, so I didn’t stop at the cash machine, and to make the price of admission ($20, to benefit the Rockaway Music and Arts Council) I had to borrow ten dollars from the film’s director, Jennifer Callahan.

I’d seen two earlier cuts of the documentary, and I liked what they did with the final version. It has green-and-yellow illustrations that loosely impose the structure of a storybook, and lighthearted music that celebrates the word “bungalow.” (It means “in the Bengal style”; a bungalow has a pitched roof and a porch.) In addition to archival footage (including Uncle Julius, a.k.a. Groucho Marx, on the beach) and interviews with historians and residents, the movie has a villain (Robert Moses). What brought the audience to the point of hissing, though, was the announcement in mid-film that the management of the Breezy Point cooperative had refused to admit the filmmakers.

Jennifer and the producer, Elizabeth Logan Harris, came to my bungalow a few years ago with a cameraman. As a newcomer to Rockaway, I had no stories of olden days to tell, but I’ve never altered the appearance of the bungalow, so they shot some of its architectural details. Naturally, I watched for my home, which appeared for about three seconds: a shot of the auxiliary kitchen, panning from refrigerator to cathedral ceiling and down to the sink with the mirror over it that is too high for me to see anything in (it’s for tall guests). The narration at that point was about the simplicity of the bungalows.

There was a reception afterward, during which I tore off to the bank in the rain so I could repay the ten dollars I’d borrowed from Jennifer. The filmmakers are hoping that “The Bungalows of Rockaway” will be shown on Channel 13 on September 16th.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Class Reunion

“I saw the car!” said a fellow-alumna of Lourdes Academy at the anti-reunion in Cleveland. “It has so much character.” She was speaking of the Éclair, which had passed inspection at Bulloch’s ($37.50) and made it yet again all the way across Pennsylvania, and was parked in front of the Saucy Bistro, where a group had gathered in remembrance of Mary Beth, who did not make it to our fortieth-year high-school reunion. I was prepared to deliver a eulogy—a brief eulogy—but no one was in the mood. So we drank to her memory—her sister Cathy, Susan, Jayne, Mary and Dean, Mary and Patti, Meg, Nancy, Paula, Mary Lou, Aura and Tony—and then those of us who were going to the official reunion formed a caravan to a sports bar called Stampers.

What can I say about seeing what people look like forty years after high-school graduation? It was an all-girls Catholic school, and during our tenure there the nuns came out of their habits, and shortly after that most of them left the convent (and some of them left the Church) and the school closed. The people I’ve stayed in touch with look the same to me, and the people I haven’t stayed in touch with I wouldn’t have recognized without their nametags. One of my old friends kept going out to the parking lot to smoke, and I went along with her, out of force of habit. Tareytons, Doublemint gum, and Tab were our poison back then.

After one trip to the parking lot (and one too many pints of beer), I decided that I would not have composed a eulogy in vain. So I put on my cowboy hat and took the stage (such as it was), and I talked about how Mary Beth and Susan and I used to play Michigan rummy, in a version packaged as a board game with the characters from “Bonanza” on the cover. We each adopted the persona of a character from “Bonanza.” Mary Beth was Pa, Susan was Adam, and I was Little Joe (no one wanted to be Hoss), and for years Pa and Little Joe carried on a correspondence … But never mind. No one was listening. Everyone was busy reminiscing about the blue plaid school uniforms and the flamingo-pink (or was it tomato-soup red?) gym “costumes” we were compelled to wear. In the yearbook, our hair styles are as dated as those of our mothers when we laughed at them as kids.

In the end, I had such a good time that I left the Éclair in the sports-bar parking lot and accepted a ride home to a friend’s house, where I slept on a luxurious couch. In the morning, she drove me to my car. The Eclair may have plenty of character, but on this occasion her battery was dim unto death. I jumped back out of the car and stopped my friend from driving away. I don’t know which is worse: having a dead battery from some mysterious mechanical ailment or having a dead battery from the stupidity of leaving your lights on. In that caravan the day before, it had looked like it might rain, and so, as if in a funeral procession, I had turned on my lights, telling myself I’d be sure and remember to turn them off. But the evening brightened, and despite a trip back to the car for my camera and all those trips to keep the smoker company and to get stuff together for a night on my friend’s couch, all I noticed was that the automatic door locks weren’t working.

I have jumper cables (in fact, they were a gift from the late Mary Beth), but I’d never actually used them to jump-start my own car. My friend offered to call her husband; I thought about calling AAA. But it was eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, and rude to disturb the peace. We could do this. The hardest part proved to be getting the hood of my friend’s car open. Fortunately, I have a little generator in the trunk, with instructions on it about which color clamp to attach to which battery terminal and in what order. I wish there were a mnemonic device for this. I attached first the red (positive), then the black (negative) onto the good battery, and then the red and the black onto the dead one, and tried starting my car. Nothing happened. “Doesn’t it have to touch the metal?” my friend said. I had been trying to cover as much territory with the clamps as possible, but I reattached them to the nuts—red, black, red, black—and this time my battery gave off a little spark, and when I opened the door, the car beeped to tell me the key was in the ignition: It was alive!

I drove off to see Dee, who helped me celebrate my name day. I’d almost forgotten, in the effort to resist the brunch and Mass that formed the centerpiece of the reunion weekend, that August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, is the day when all people named Mary celebrate (at least in Europe). The superstition is that if you go into a body of water on that day, you will enjoy good health for the rest of the year. So I took a dip in Lake Erie, my natal waters. The slime along the rim and the packed mud on the floor and the wavelets don’t have that health-giving salty tang you expect from water once you’ve gotten used to the ocean. Once, this water tasted not just fresh but sweet to me. Not this time.

Back in New York, on Tuesday morning I moved my car to a spot on a Thursday/Friday street, but when I went back to it on Wednesday, there was a ticket pinned under the windshield wiper. Damn. I had parked along a median strip, and it was hard to tell which sign applied to my side of the strip, an ambiguity that I plan to develop when, inevitably, I contest this ticket for parking in a No Standing zone.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


My New York State inspection sticker expires—or, rather, expired—on 08/08/10. It seemed so far away back in June, when I renewed my car registration. And there is no grace period. The police come around in the middle of the night, my neighbor T. says, and shine a flashlight on every car to read the stickers in its windshield. What’s more, 08/08/10 means midnight, Saturday, August 7, 2010, not Sunday, August 8, at 11:59 P.M. I don’t have till Monday. They take this stuff seriously.

I had been planning on driving into the city on Monday and doing various good deeds while my mechanic gave the car its emissions test, etc. But last Friday, when I called, they said Monday was too busy and that I should come in on Saturday. No way I was leaving the beach on Saturday.

So I called Bulloch, my Rockaway mechanic. Baby Bulloch said for a car as old as mine (1990) they couldn't do the test on weekends—something about the equipment being hooked up to the state. It was already too late in the day to get it done on Friday. I could bring the car in on Monday. Meanwhile, park it in a driveway.

(Do they make these things expire on Sunday on purpose?)

My neighbor T., who has been borrowing my car on a regular-enough basis that his two-year-old son can pick out the Éclair in a parking lot (granted, it has on its rear bumper a distinctive lineup of stickers for the fishermen’s parking lot), arranged for me to park behind his truck in the lot of the Getty station on the corner. The car could still get ticketed, the owner warned. But unless the cops really have been doing nighttime surveillance and knew the Éclair was due for inspection and were just waiting for me to fuck up, it shouldn’t attract any attention, except maybe to the wisdom of its owner in putting it in the lot, as our street is being torn up tomorrow. No Parking Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.

There is so much commotion on the block. They are still working on the elevated station (once every hundred years, whether it needs it or not), which involves sprucing up the areas under the elevated that are owned by the M.T.A. A patch of broken concrete on our corner, under the El, separated only by a fence from T.’s deck, has been torn up (jackhammers, backhoes, rude awakenings). Right around the corner, a truck from the D.E.P. is pumping sewage from a manhole near the corner to one up the street. In between is a major sinkhole, caused by a blockage in the sewer line. This is what they are going to fix.

Yesterday, a man with the face of a villain in a Beatles movie came down the block with a camera. He was documenting conditions, he said, in case property owners complain of damage. Though his face could so easily have turned to a snarl, as he took pains to explain to me that he was completely neutral, that these pictures would show an impartial view of what had been here before the excavation and would be used to solve arguments between the contractor and the property owner after the excavation, his face mellowed, and I saw that he was not a villain but a nice man with a camera.

Much as I hate to see the summer end, there’s nothing like a sewer project to make a girl's fancy turn toward thoughts of fall in Manhattan.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


[From the archives]

Ship’s Log, September 6, 2003

Splendid day. Started out at high tide (around 4 P.M.) after bailing half a foot of water (and one dead fish) out of the boat. I had a vague plan to go around Broad Channel counterclockwise. Pete suggested an alternative route: up through the Wildlife Refuge and back via the airport channel. Angela, his wife, was in New England. An old friend of Pete’s named Brian had turned up at the marina, and before I left, Pete said that Brian wanted to take him and Angela out to dinner to celebrate their birthdays, which were within a day of each other, and he (Pete) was entitled to a substitute, so if I got back in time . . . It was a kind of round-about invitation to dinner. When I finally figured out what he was saying, I didn’t have the heart to tell Pete that I had already made dinner plans. I had accepted an invitation for seven o’clock from friends of a friend. The friend himself couldn’t make it, but I was stuck.

(I was struggling with whether or not I was part of a couple. I had met this friend—I’ll call him Dick—on the beach in late July, after an e-mail correspondence begun during the World Series the fall before. I’d taken him out in the boat, we’d gone to the Wharf together, he’d treated me to dinner at Popeye’s. We’d gone out in a big sailboat with a friend of his in Long Island Sound. We’d had bad sex, we’d had good sex. Our sex life was about three days old. When the invitation came from Michelle, his friend and my neighbor in Rockaway, I didn’t consult with him before accepting, because I wanted to be independent. I WAS independent, and though being with Pete and Angela had made me long to be part of a couple, I couldn’t assume that I was; I was afraid to. I didn’t know if Dick felt we were a couple. Anyway, I saw no reason not to accept the invitation, but I didn’t want to go if Dick wasn’t going. Michelle was HIS friend. As it turned out, he was busy that night with something he didn’t elaborate on, and he was trying to get Michelle to switch the day and time.)

I chose Pete’s course. They were dredging the Cow Path, a channel navigable only at high tide—and frankly not visible to me, on the chart or in the water, at high tide or low—so this was not the time to discover the Cow Path. A plume of dark clammy sand rose from the dredging equipment in the marshes. I went west, past the Wharf, to the buoys marking the channel at Ruffle Bar—Pumpkin Patch Channel. Watching the other boats, I found my way into Shad Creek, where I saw the backs of the houses on stilts that are visible from a car on Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel. There was a tiny yacht club, some huge houses, lots of American flags, boats moored and docked.

I tried to find my way into the Wildlife Refuge by the route Pete had shown me on the chart (I’d learned not to call it a map), but all I could see was reeds, so I went back out to the channel and headed north, toward the skyline and the North Channel Bridge, to circle around by JFK. I was still alongside the Wildlife Refuge when the motor died. I got it started again, but it quit on me again after about three minutes or three hundred yards. I checked the gas line, checked the connections, made sure the throttle was at Start and the gear was in neutral. I got it started again, but it kept choking. I tried to sweet talk the engine, stroking it. By now I was under the North Channel Bridge, in water that was very shallow, according to the chart. I was very far from home and I was cutting corners. (This was the first sign of panic. I’d always been careful to stay in deep water even at high tide, but now, instead of observing the buoys, the channels—the lane markers of the sea—I was just heading straight for my objective. Not a good idea. If I were in a car, I'd be going offroad, cutting through fields.) I called Pete on my cell phone, which I had bought for precisely this purpose, but I didn’t have his cell-phone number, so I knew that my little SOS was sounding in the bungalow at the marina with no one there to hear it. Even when Pete came in from the boatyard, it was unlikely he would listen to his messages.

The motor conked out again under the bridge. I was drifting, between efforts to start the engine, and three guys who had been out fishing tried to help. They had a gaff hook and one of them came aboard. He got the engine started and said that maybe I had flooded it; it was idling O.K. They had just come from my home marina and didn’t much like the idea of towing me all the way back over there. Pete had often stated that beginners make the mistake, when something goes wrong, of thinking they have to get the boat home, which is not the most important thing and which is how motors get ruined. I could have asked to be towed to Howard Beach, on this side of the bay, but all my instincts were for going home.

My fishermen friends advised me to go full throttle across the bay. One of them gave me his cell-phone number and said that if I didn’t call he was going to assume I was safe and forget about me. Need I mention that three men on their way home from a day of fishing on Jamaica Bay were three sheets to the wind?

I managed two or three more spurts across the bay. Each time the motor died, I tried sweet-talking it, stroking it, crooning instead of cursing. It felt hot, feverish. At one point, I was so involved with the engine and ever so slightly panicked that I let go of the buoys: I lost track of them, like losing the count in a piece of music—it’s hard to find your way back in. I had been bobbing among some buoys that I knew marked the channel wide of the airport, but I couldn’t see the next buoy to line myself up with, and when I got the engine started again I headed directly for the smokestack on the peninsula. Basically, I set a course directly for home, with no regard for any obstacles in my way. When the motor died yet again, and I tried to restart it, I noticed it was smoking.

I started making phone calls. I called the fisherman and left a message and my vague location. By this time it was twenty to seven and I realized I wasn’t going to make my dinner date. I called my hostess, Michelle; she’d called me that afternoon to confirm, so her number was stored on the phone. “Hello, Michelle? Listen, I’m stuck out in Jamaica Bay and won’t be back in time for dinner.” “You can come late—we will wait for you.” “Oh, no, don’t do that.” Why wouldn’t she just let me cancel? “Unless you think it would be too much for you . . .” “That’s it, by the time I get home I will be . . .” I felt like a fraud. It was such an extreme excuse for getting out of a dinner date.

About Pete I realized that my only hope was to be in mid-message, sounding urgent, as he happened to be passing the phone. As I was prolonging my message—“Help! I’m out here off the airport and there’s about an hour of light left”—someone picked up the phone and said, “Mary?” “Oh Pete, thank God you’re there.” “No, it’s Pete’s friend Brian. Pete is upstairs in the shower.”

I was saved.

I explained to Pete, when he got out of the shower, that the motor was smoking, that I was alongside the airport, in the channel.

“Did you set the anchor?” (He pronounced it "ankuh.")

“No, I was trying to row.”

“Hah! I’ve seen you row. Set the anchor and relax. I’ve got to borrow a boat and we’ll come find you.”

I had in fact made a stab at rowing, but my oars had disappeared over the winter, and I was working with a pair of mismatched paddles. I wasn’t going anywhere. So I threw in the anchor. The phone rang while I was waiting. It was Dick, the man who couldn’t come to dinner, whose friends I was standing up. It sounded like he was at a party. “I’m stuck in the middle of Jamaica Bay,” I said. “Well, get out of there,” he said and hung up. No goodbye.

There was nothing to do now but enjoy the sunset. I had a camera with me (I’d taken a few shots of Shad Creek when it looked like that would be the high point of my adventure), so I used up the rest of the film on shots of airplanes taking off and the Manhattan skyline and the orange ripples on the water and the Rockaway skyline, with the trestle bridge I’d been heading for and the smokestack. When I ran out of film, I tried to write everything down. The buildings on the skyline were a deep, palpable gray. Gulls were shrieking all around me. Planes were taking off. Sunset was at 7:11. And now the moon was appearing. The water on the side of the boat away from the sun had a coat of purple over gray, all iridescent. On the side near the sun a network of gold veins formed by the wind or the current spread over the water, gold on black, weaving together into orange. Was it almost ugly?

I had only two light beers with me. I drank the last one.

Pete had given me his cell-phone number and I called him again.

“You’re not where you said you are,” he said. (No hello.) “Do you see any other boats where you are?”


“Do you see a runway?”

“Yes. It’s all pilings coming out from the airport.”

“Is it to your right or left?”

That was a hard question. Both. It was to my north, but Pete, for good reason, didn’t trust me to know the points of the compass. So he said, “Where is the moon, from where you are?”

“Southeast.” That was a trick question.

“And the control tower?”


“Now look at your chart. From where you are, is the water deep between you and the sunset?”

Between the cell phone, the chart, and the bifocals, I wasn’t sure I could manage in the waning light, but yes, the water was deep between me and the sunset. Pete needed to know, because he couldn’t risk ruining the boat he had borrowed by scraping it on the bottom.

He came out of the sunset in a flat white boat, with Brian in the bow. I was so glad to see them. I hauled up the anchor, and Pete tied the boat to a tow line. “Climb into this boat,” he said. “By the way, you need a lesson in reconnoitering.”

My job on the ride back was to make sure the little boat didn’t get caught in the wake of the tow boat and tip over. It did get caught at one point. In the marina, I climbed out, and Pete told me to row my boat into its slip while he and Brian returned the boat they’d borrowed. When they came down the dock, I was still in the same place, struggling. “What’s at the end of that line?” Pete asked, pointing behind me. “You’re snagged on something.” I drew it up: it was the anchor. It must have flipped out of the boat when it got caught in the wake.

I had told Pete about the three guys who told me to go full throttle across the bay, and he said there was a lesson in that: Don’t take advice from bozos. And another lesson: Don’t think you have to get the boat home. “And now we’re going to dinner, right?”

So we went to the Harbor Light, my second-favorite restaurant, after the Wharf, and I had Guinness and London broil. “No fish, right?” Pete said. I had told Michelle I’d call her when I got home. I didn’t mean to make anyone worry, and I did have the cell phone, but there were about four hours, from sunset to eleven, when I was incommunicado, sitting quite pleasantly, first in the boat and then in the bar with my rescuers. How was I going to account for this to Michelle and Dick? I decided simply to say that I had been kidnapped.

When I looked at the chart later, I saw that I was in a little back bay off Kennedy Airport, and if I had succeeded in going in the direction I’d been headed, I’d have gone up on a runway. A few weeks earlier, there had been a piece in the paper about some fishermen whose boat washed up on airport property, and they wandered the runways among jumbo jets before finding their way to the Port Authority Police. (That was point of the story: that in the age of the war against terrorism, the wayward fishermen at the airport had to find the police, not the other way around.) What would have happened if I hadn’t reached Pete? I probably would have tied up at the airport and sat there until the police came to arrest me.

Michelle rescheduled the dinner for the next day, and Dick went with me. We never did become a couple, though. Things started to unravel right after I referrred to him in public, twice, as my boyfriend, both times in a context of complaint. I think I knew that night that it wasn’t going to work out: him on his cell phone at a party in Manhattan, checking in; me riding at anchor in Jamaica Bay, ripe for other invitations.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On Curb Cuts

For everything you ever wanted to know about curb cuts, see this article in yesterday's New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/realestate/01cov.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

For a long-overdue three-part piece on boating, see below. If it's too long, read it one part at a time.

The Last Sunset

1. The Phone Call

With Angela and Pete, more than with anyone I know, I always call at the wrong time. I called last summer to ask how Angela’s mother was doing—she was very old, and had finally fallen and landed in the hospital—and they were just walking out the door to go to her funeral. There I was in Pete’s pocket. On Sunday, I was going to wait and call at about six, cocktail hour, but I called at four-thirty, determined to check one more thing off my list of things to do: See Buster about outboard (check). Call Angela and Pete (check). I needed to get the boat registered, which meant I needed the title, which meant I needed to get in touch with Angela, who had registered the boat to her and Pete’s business. I caught them in the car: they had just gotten into Rockaway with a load of plants that Angela’s sister the nun, out on Long Island, had gotten on sale at Lowe’s, and they were going back upstate to the farm in the morning. Pete handed me to Angela, who said in her mild voice, “Hi, Mary, how are you?” And then, after I gave her a hearty “I’m fine!” she said, “Mary, you just almost deafened me.” Pete had put me on speaker phone.

I was overjoyed to hear that they were in Rockaway. I invited them over for dinner—my friend Clancey and I were going to make chicken salad and grilled vegetables—but Angela griped about parking and also said that they were not comfortable leaving the dock once they were down there. Well, I blurted out, could we come to the dock for sunset?

One of the things I have always loved about the people on the dock was that, though they’d lived in those stilt houses on Jamaica Bay forever, they never got tired of the sunset. The night before, Clancey and I had gone to the Wharf for dinner and, failing to find a table outside, we were sitting just inside a window, rather forlornly. I went out to the car to get my cap and returned via the ladies’ room to be greeted at the bar by the Boss’s girlfriend, Sandra. The Boss was there, too, hiding behind his sunglasses. They had seen me dancing out the door. (The Beach Boys or something silly of my vintage were on the jukebox, and I guess I wasn’t that forlorn.) I was so relieved for having gone to the marina a week earlier and paid the Boss: $1,500, $500 for the remainder of last season (when I didn’t take the boat out at all) and $1,000 for this season. He and Sandra got a table outside, having left their name with the head waitress, and I was trying to do the same (though we’d already ordered) when Sandra relented and said, “Why don’t you sit with us?” I was elated to be at the Wharf watching the sunset with the Boss and his girlfriend. They are like Rockaway royalty. It was about eight o’clock, and sunset was at eight-twenty. The Boss complained that some guy who was waiting for a table was blocking his view.

So I was crowing about this on speaker phone when Angela said, “To be honest, Mary”—uh-oh, what was coming?—“I totally believe that the Boss stole everything over the years.”

2. The Message

Angela needed to get off the phone—Pete had gone into a deli, leaving her double-parked in the middle of the Boulevard—and she said she’d call me back. With one phone call, I had shattered the serenity of a Sunday afternoon. I started the coals and strung up some twine for the morning glories to climb on; if I was going to be in agony, I would at least be able to check one more thing off my list. So I missed the callback from Angela, but she left a message:

“You can come over for the sunset, but these are the ground rules: Bring a bag of ice. You can have two beers apiece. We can’t offer you anything else—all we have is some leftovers, just enough for ourselves. It’s a little embarrassing, but that’s the way it is.” She was almost inaudible, or maybe I didn’t want to hear anymore. For the boat, she told me I should bring the registration and a Xerox of my driver’s license. (Pete in the background: “Or she can fax it.”) “And there’s no water.” They hadn’t turned on the water in the bungalow since the start of last season, when they came home to find the place vandalized.

I couldn’t decide what to do. Clancey didn’t know Angela and Pete—they’d never met, though Clancey had been out in the boat with me—and she was disinclined to go. I decided to jump in the ocean before the lifeguards went off duty, at six. Actually, the last thing I wanted to squeeze into the hundred and forty minutes before sunset was a search for a photocopier on the peninsula. On the way down to the beach I had the idea of taking a picture of my driver’s license, downloading it to my computer, and printing it.

When I got back, Pete called, in his role as apologist for Angela. Really, my friend and I were welcome. “If you do come, we’d like to know what time, so we can be semi-prepared,” he said. So I told him I’d be there at eight: twenty minutes to sunset. I repeated all this to Clancey. She was more disinclined than ever to visit the dock. To her it was blazingly clear that Angela, at any rate, did not want company. Plus dinner was almost ready. “Could we take them some food?” I asked, knowing they would have already eaten. It was just too awkward. Not even my plan to take a digital picture of my license worked: the crucial information came out blurry. The ocean had solved nothing. Pete’s phone call had solved nothing.

While I stewed, Clancey grilled. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that this was all a Tom Sawyer-style ruse to get my guest to do the cooking. We had grilled-chicken salad with fresh dill and free mayonnaise that the girls in the deli had given us in packets (after telling us that a small jar of Hellman’s cost a shocking $5.49); potatoes, striped squash, eggplant, and a multicolored pepper—Clancey said it was called a chocolate pepper—from the organic farmstand; and a bottle of red wine, which I sipped just a little of. “I’m glad I ate before going over there,” I said. I had enough anxiety without adding hunger to it. “You sure you don’t wanna come with me?” I left, alone, at about seven-thirty.

I bought a bag of ice and called Pete on my way over. The gate to the marina was locked, no sign of Pete—I was a little early—so I showed how independent and resourceful I was by parking on the Drive. They had taught me to call it “the Drive,” instead of Beach Channel Drive, as they had taught me to call Rockaway Beach Boulevard “the Boulevard” (the neighborhood kids call it the Dirty Boulevard) and Ocean Parkway “the Parkway” and Rockaway Freeway “the Freeway.”

3. The Visit

The dead-end street from the Drive to the dock, High Tide Street, smelled of sewage. A few years ago, a developer put up apartment buildings here, on a street that floods regularly, twice a month. Who would choose to live on such a street? Did the agents arrange to show the apartments only at low tide? Many black children, including a toddler, were playing outside on the stoops and in the street. There’s a storm drain here, too. Between that and the tide and plumbing that obviously wasn’t adequate, the street had turned into Rockaway’s own cholera epidemic.

Angela had come out to dispose of one small plastic bag of household garbage. “I shouldn’t have said that about the Boss,” she said right away. “I can’t prove anything, and you don’t need to hear that.” She mentioned some things, like their dinghy, that had gone missing over the years. I hoped she didn’t suspect that he was the one who broke into their bungalow, that it was an inside job.

Pete had gone into the boatyard to wait for me at the gate—we had just missed each other. I gave Angela the bag of ice and went out to meet him. He made me go back up to the Drive and pull my car in the lot. “Otherwise,” he said, “you have to walk down that nasty street again.”

“So is this a hit-and-run or are you going to stay for a while?” Pete asked.

“One beer,” I replied. I had to get back to Clancey, and I knew they were busy—they were always busy. That’s why I hadn’t yet descended on them upstate, in the house they were fixing up to rent out to skiers. I was afraid they’d feel they had to drop everything and entertain me.

Pete was sorry that Clancey hadn't come with me. “See those clouds?” he said, pointing to a tiered arrangement of fluff to the north. “If the sun goes down right, those will light up beautifully.” But there was a bank of clouds at the horizon, and the sun might just plop behind it with no fireworks. “A nothing sunset,” Pete called it. A dud.

He showed me the plants they’d picked up from Angela's sister. The S.U.V. was crammed with them—hibiscus, phlox. The sister had gotten carried away—some of them cost only sixty cents. The plants surrounded an ancient pump that originally cost thousands of dollars; Pete had picked it up for a few hundred.

The Boss had mentioned the night before that Pete and Angela had auctioned off all their furniture, so I was semi-prepared for the empty bungalow. Pete stood outside sort of ruefully, almost ashamed, as I regarded the splintered railing and shuttered windows. The back windows were shuttered, too. Angela had set out the paperwork on a table against the back wall. “We’ll take care of business first,” she said. I signed where she told me to. I gave Pete an envelope with eighty-five dollars and the betting sheet from the Kentucky Derby. When I’d offered to pay for the boat, earlier in the summer, he refused, then said I could give him ten dollars. I wagered his ten dollars on a horse in the Kentucky Derby, choosing the horse on a hunch, but trying to channel Pete’s hunch: I picked Super Saver, and we won eighty-five dollars. It was not the fortune I imagined on my way back to the O.T.B., clutching the betting chit in my greedy little hands. Still, as Pete said, “It’s more than ten dollars.”

Pete offered me a beer. “We’ve got one Spaten and three Schaeffers,” he said. I took the Spaten. They had no bottle opener, so he had to perform the cigarette-lighter trick with a screwdriver.

“Pete, Mary brought us ice,” Angela said in her role as Pete’s etiquette coach.

“Thanks,” he said. Now I know: for people who are staying in a house on stilts without running water in the summer, ice is the perfect gift.

I had a few other little gifts for them: a package of artichoke seeds from Amsterdam and a box of matches from Greece. Pathetic, but it could have been worse: I’d almost grabbed an open bag of tortilla chips to share, but Clancey discouraged me. The matches now seemed ominous. I hoped they’d be used only to light a candle.

The Boss had been sweet to them lately, Pete said, and told me a story: The Boss had called about the sewage over the winter, and someone came out, but the guy said the building was in foreclosure, so there was nothing he could do. Then he asked the Boss, “Who owns this property?” They were outside the tumbledown bungalows, uninhabited for decades, that the Boss’s grandfather the bootlegger had owned. “I do,” said the Boss. So the guy gave him a ticket for a crack in the sidewalk. Pete shook his head disgustedly. “And they come after us for pooping in the bay.”

Somebody over at the other marina that Pete does business with was also giving up on Rockaway. “It’s Third World,” Pete said.

“When are you going to come visit us?” Angela said. “We’re happy up there.” They bragged that the deer hadn’t eaten any of their garden. “Every day, he pees the perimeter,” Angela said. Pete described the drive along the reservoir from Ellenville.

The next morning they were having the gas and electricity turned off in the bungalow. They'd had the phone turned off last summer. “That’s thirty dollars a month we’ll save,” Pete said.

So this was it. I had been keeping an eye out for the sun from the gloom at the back of the boarded-up bungalow, but it was north of the door. There was no movement to go outside and watch, and only one chair out there. It was a long way from the days we’d sit outside at cocktail hour—Pete called it his favorite meal of the day—and I’d practice knot-tying, and he and Angela made fun of me: “She’ll learn to tie a knot when she loses a boat in the bay.”

Anyway, it was a nothing sunset. “Well, at least I don’t have to be sad,” Angela said.

“I have to go,” I said. No one protested.

“Mary, would you like that sailboat?” Angela pointed to a round stained-glass object on the wall: a boat at sunset, its sail shaped like a smile and striped like a rainbow. “Margie gave it to me, and I’m sure she’d be glad to know you have it.”

“Did Margie make it?” Pete asked. Margie was a friend of theirs who had a potter's wheel in her basement and decorated tiles and could probably do stained-glass work if she felt like it.

“No. I think she found it somewhere.”

That made Pete start scouting around for something to give me. He grabbed another sailboat off the wall, a 3-D one, its sculpted sail swelling out of the frame.

Outside, Angela offered me a low collapsible table with the points of the compass in blue on white—very nautical. It had come off one of the boats they handled, and I had admired it—coveted it, in fact. I took it gladly. Pete opened the door to the storage space between the bungalows. “Can you use a vase?” he asked, handing me a dusty glass vase that looked vaguely familiar.

“O.K., I suppose so.” But that was it—I couldn’t hold any more.

“Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll give you the Egg Harbor,” Pete said, trying to sell me the last boat in his inventory. “Two thousand dollars. You can take it to work.” That made me smile. So what if the Rockaway ferry was no more? I could make my own run to Manhattan.

It was not the sunset I had been hoping for, but it was good to see with my own eyes that Angela and Pete really are done with Rockaway. I will always be grateful that they accepted me on the dock and put me in a boat and gave me memories (besides the ones of getting towed in): water lapping under the bungalow, the A train rumbling over the trestle bridge behind Angela’s kitchen curtains, the swallows darting from their nests among the pilings in the evening, the swans gliding up to the dock, and the drip of the tap that the Boss left open so that the swans would have fresh water.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Lately I have been so obsessed with landing a good parking spot that I have been cutting short my time at the beach. Last Saturday I had to rush home to attend a concert of the group I used to sing with (they are doing just fine without me), but come Sunday I just could not leave the beach until I had inhaled every whiff of rose my head could hold and heard every bird and imprinted on my mind’s eye an image of the ocean, rippled as far as the horizon, with clear, pale bands of sky stretching out, panorama style.

Sometimes all of Queens smells like roses. This weekend, the breeze coming off the dunes held a light, waxy fragrance, something like laurel. On a cinder path at Fort Tilden I came across a stand of wild white wisteria that was still in bloom. At the top of the stairs there is a viewing platform, but I didn't linger, because two guys were up there with a sad-eyed boxer named Max.

I had a doctor’s appointment at 8:30 on Monday morning—and I was hoping to get a 7:30-8 spot on K Street, but by eight-thirty on Sunday night the cars were parked bumper to bumper. No other Monday-Thursday spot would do, which seemed a great pity, because alternate side is suspended on Thursday for Shavuot, the feast of cheesecake. No cheesecake for me . . . I was lucky to find a Tuesday-Friday spot that a couple were just leaving.

So this morning I organized myself for an hour and a half in the car and headed out into a light rain. I was parked on a friendly block where I have never or rarely participated in the double-parking exercise—I’m not even sure it’s customary there—so I decided to cruise a little, maybe check out the Sanctuary, just to see if there was a Monday-Thursday spot somewhere, so I could quick convert to Judaism. Down the street, a right on the avenue, a tie-up at the intersection, a left on the block where there is hardly ever a spot because of the car-rental agency . . . and there on my left, before a curb cut, was a spot that was just my size. I made sure I wasn’t crowding the car behind me, and then sat there for a while, stunned. Suddenly I was free not only for the next hour and a half but on Thursday and Friday morning as well. I could have my cheesecake and eat it, too.